Saturday evening we all went to the Ritz Theater in downtown Brunswick to watch A Christmas Story, performed live as a radio broadcast by the Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association. They've been running radio-style adaptations of famous films for several years now. I'd assumed that they've been using scripts from the 1940's shows like Lux Radio Theater. But A Christmas Story was written in 1983. So somebody stepped in.
In past years, they've done Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, A Christmas Carol, and The Maltese Falcon. The idea has been to recreate a 1940's broadcast, and give us a sense of sitting in the studio. We watch the production of sound effects, get commercials, respond to electronic signals directing us to applaud and, in one show –if my memory is correct—, we got a break-in report of an attack on Pearl Harbor. The audience receives programs that are designed to capture the earlier era: They list, e.g., the original actors. The actual cast is there also, credited with playing the original actors, rather than the characters in the play.
The force behind these shows, as best an outsider can tell, has been Heather Heath. She is executive director of GIA&H, and has directed the performances. On prominent display throughout the series also has been Scott Ryfun, who, in A Christmas Story, plays the grown-up Ralphie while also functioning as narrator. Scott is host of the local radio show, Straight Talk, and I'd be remiss in failing to mention that he was the inspiration for Brad Hollister, one of the lead characters in Thunderbird.
I've had a lifelong passion for live theater. During my high school teaching years, I was assigned the role of theatrical director. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The students had a ton of enthusiasm, and they were remarkably talented. I'll admit here that I was surprised at how good they were. I hadn't expected it when we first started. Eventually, I got used to it. And maybe even reached a point where I took it for granted. Even today, fifty years later, some of the people who performed in South Pacific, Oklahoma, Arsenic and Old Lace, and the other shows, are still in touch. Somehow, I still think of them as kids.
A Christmas Story is based on the work of Jean Shepherd. I suspect most of the people reading this will know Shepherd only for this play. He was a radio personality during the 1950's. And I'll confess if there's any single performer –I don't know how properly to describe him—that I would have liked to meet, that I would bring back if I could, it's Shep.
He was a humorist, but one who operated on a remarkably high level. He embodied much of what has made Mark Twain and James Thurber immortal. The difference is that they recorded their prime material on paper. Shepherd's best work is about sixty light-years out, approaching Zeta Leporis. It's depressing that so few people now know him except as the source for one film. He wrote stories for a number of markets which have been collected in several volumes, primarily In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters. In 2005, Eugene B. Bergmann published an appreciation titled Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.
Jerry Seinfeld credits Shepherd as the major influence in the evolution of his career. Garrison Keillor has been quoted along similar lines. The most startling compliment I ever received as a teacher came from a librarian who told me that I reminded her of Shepherd.